REVIEW: The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen by KJ Charles
Content warning: child abuse, neglect
Dear KJ Charles,
What a delight this book was! So cleverly and tightly plotted and so very romantic. There were only a couple of things I had questions about – but given that this is billed as “the Doomsdays book 1”, I’m hoping we’ll see Gareth and Joss in future books and those answers will be provided then.
Notwithstanding how much I enjoyed the book, readers should note that there is some explicit child abuse on page involving one of the Doomsday cousins. Also Gareth was neglected as a child by his father and his uncle (but this didn’t extend to physical abuse).
As the book begins, Gareth Inglis is late for an assignation at the Three Ducks in London. He has been meeting “Kent” there for a week for hot sex. Given the sodomy laws in 1810, Gareth is very careful about not giving out his name. He is “London”. Gareth is fair and tall and thin; gangly really. Kent is shorter, muscular and dark – brown-skinned, black hair and dark eyes. A week earlier their eyes had met across a crowded room and then… But Kent is leaving London and Gareth, used to being left and not trusting anyone to come back ever, rejects Kent’s offer to renew their acquaintance when next he’s in London. Gareth is not polite about it and things between the men end badly.
Only days later, Gareth learns of the death of his father and his own inheritance – a baronetcy and all that comes with it, including Tench House in Romney Marsh, Kent, and a half sister he’s never met. After the death of his mother when Gareth was six years old, his father left him with his Uncle Henry. And that was the last Gareth ever saw of his father. His father remarried and had a daughter, Cecelia, but Gareth was not invited into the new family home. Uncle Henry never wanted Gareth and made that plain. While fed, clothed and educated, Gareth was abandoned and unwanted and desperately lonely. Uncle Henry is a lawyer. His own son, Lionel, about the same age as Gareth, is also an attorney. Gareth was training as a clerk (admittedly he wasn’t very good at it) and on the day he last saw Kent, he had been summarily dismissed and ejected by his uncle for reasons unknown.
When Gareth travels to Romney Marsh to take up his inheritance he barely dares hope that he can form a bond with Cecy and that he can find a home. But he wants it. He’s also sad that he never got the chance to know his father or understand him. At Tench House Gareth finds the housekeeper and the late Sir Hugo’s mistress, Catherine, who was his late (second) wife’s sister – Cecy’s aunt. It’s a bit messy and untoward but it gave Catherine a home and meant she could stay to raise Cecy, who is now 17.
Catherine explains Sir Hugo best to Gareth: he didn’t like to be troubled. If a thing was troublesome, he put it aside. After the death of Gareth’s mother, Gareth was a problem to be resolved – trouble to be put aside. After Cecy’s mother died, perhaps Cecy would have suffered the same fate – but Catherine was there so Sir Hugo was not “troubled” overmuch. It is not a satisfactory explanation but then, Sir Hugo was not a nice man.
Romney Marsh is a smuggling area. And the Doomsdays run the smuggling in Romney Marsh. “Ma” Doomsday is in charge of the family and her eldest son, Joss, is the Upright Man in charge of the smuggling runs. Ma is a tough lady. She’s had to be. Just about everyone is scared of her but they also all respect her. Her one area of weakness is her brother, Elijah. Elijah has long believed he should be the head of the family and the Upright Man but he’s just not very good at either. He’s lazy, overly aggressive and a drunkard. Joss prefers a less confrontational modus operandi. Joss knows things are coming to a head there but he’s not looking forward to the argument he’ll have to have with his mother about it. Joss loves his mother dearly but he is fully aware of her ferocity.
“What’s that, girl?” Ma demanded, emerging from the beer cellar. Joss had once seen a pantomime in London where the Demon King had risen through the stage on a trapdoor. The memory returned quite often.
Cecy is walking out with a Preventive Officer and in trying to get into her good graces, Gareth volunteers that he saw a young woman, apparently mid smuggling run, to the authorities. The woman, Sophia Doomsday, Joss’s younger sister, is therefore arrested. Gareth will need to testify. Of course, Joss is “Kent” and there is one sure way to persuade Gareth his memory was perhaps faulty…
Needless to say, their first meeting on the Marsh does not go well. Nor does their second or third. But Joss is determined to put things to rights as much as he can. He developed feelings for Gareth in London and Joss has a keen sense of balance and justice.
When someone threatens Cecy, Gareth goes to Joss – at first to demand answers and then to get help. Someone wants something from Gareth but he doesn’t know what it is. It clearly has something to do with Sir Hugo but exactly what is a mystery. Gareth had no relationship with the man so he has no clue. The people making the threats are being very vague but they are also very determined and vicious. And then Uncle Henry comes sniffing around wanting to look at Sir Hugo’s papers. Could these things be connected?
Gareth discovers that Sir Hugo had a keen interest in naturalism and made a survey of Romney Marsh and its various inhabitants. Gareth, in trying to know his father better, starts to follow in his footsteps and finds he too, is fascinated by the insects and fish and plant life. Joss offers to show Gareth where he can find a great diving beetle and this leads the men to spend time together in enjoyment rather than tension and, over a little time, to renew their romantic relationship.
Gareth is a bit of a stickler at first and he’s quite horrified at Joss’s occupation. But Joss makes a spirited and persuasive argument for smuggling and Gareth, being a reasonable man, is forced to reconsider his worldview. I must say, Joss’s argument was very persuasive.
Between the unknown threat to Gareth, the unexpected arrival of Uncle Henry and Cousin Lionel, and the machinations of Elijah, things are pretty risky for Joss and Gareth. But Joss is the guy who fixes things and gets things done. He can make arrangements for them to spend time together alone and be safe. He’s sure of it. Gareth is not quite so sanguine.
“You have a lot to lose.”
“But I’ve a fair bit to lose if they hang me for smuggling too. You can’t just not do things acause of the consequences.”
“Consequences are literally the reason not to do things. That’s what they’re for.”
There is some local dialect (?) that is used in the book, some of which is explained (the various meanings for “middling” for instance) but some of which isn’t. I gathered most of it from context clues – I gather “dunnamany” means “a lot”- but I wouldn’t have minded a glossary. The local colour serves to show that the Marsh is its own place. You are either a “marshman” or “outmarsh”. Marshmen don’t have much time for outmarsh folk. The language closes the reader in to the Marsh and that adds to that sense of separation from the rest of the world and the sense that the reader is also a marshman.
And then there are some beautiful descriptions; word pictures that are just perfect, like this:
There was a remarkably pervasive quality to the rain on Romney Marsh, as if the sky had chosen its side in the precarious balance between land and sea.
Or Gareth’s mental description of his changing relationship with Joss.
Joss’s smile. The way they’d kissed. Even that stupid argument, about which Gareth had given himself some serious talkings-to, because of how Joss had listened afterwards. The touch of his hands, the wonder in his eyes, the astonishing sense of familiarity, as though he and Gareth had somehow slipped past one another all their lives and their meeting was long overdue.
It had felt like that with Kent too, and he’d told himself it wasn’t real. Now he’d started wondering if it had been, say, true in outline. As if ‘London and Kent’ had been a pencil drawing, and now it was being filled in with colours.
There is a broad cast of characters – Catherine Inglis is a remarkable woman who comes to be a pseudo mother figure for Gareth. Asa Doomsday, Joss’s grandfather, who was formerly enslaved in Georgia is, for all Ma’s over authority, a power “behind the throne” so to speak.
I enjoyed how the mystery played out and how historical realities were threaded into it. Joss and Gareth are wonderful together, very much like pieces of a puzzle which just fit. Gareth wants to belong and Joss, always the caretaker, needs some taking care of himself. Together they meet each other’s needs and make each other better.